Thursday, 17 November 2011

Vegetarian Me – Part 1

I have been vegetarian (meaning I eat eggs and dairy) for about fifteen years. In that time I have probably heard just about every criticism of vegetarianism that can be made. In the past I have assuaged such negativity by retreating into the world of knowledge and counter-arguments accumulated over the years. But the 60s, the 70s? They are no more. The zeal of that time, the zeitgeist has well and truly subsided. An inspired, environmental curiosity relegated to Woodstock documentaries and middle aged regret. The current age is one dominated by information, regardless of whether or not it is “true”. Indeed, much more important than truth is truth’s analog: the rhythm and distribution of repetition. If the same thing is said, over and over and in so many places then it cannot be anything other than truth. Such agglomerations of contemporary neurosis do not merely litter the internet, rather, they define it.

One particular issue I find confounding is that of soy. It has been for quite a number of years now, quite fashionable to not only question the so-called health benefits of soy but also to outright deny the little beans. I am reminded of 9/11 deniers, climate change sceptics and Obama birthplace doubters. The lines, as if read from a script have been repeated enough times that their veracity is irrelevant. What is most frightening is that these themes have become tangible enough in the minds of people as to have become truth ipso facto. Meanwhile, what seems to elude the staunchest critics of soy (fermented or otherwise) is that hundreds of millions of people in North East Asia (especially China, Korea and Japan) have been eating soy for thousands of years with no problems. Because the reality of this apparently cut-and-dry historical, cultural, geographical, biological and culinary fact, is well outside the experience of most Americans (and indeed their proxies in Australia, Canada etc), it simply cannot be comprehended. Let us turn toward what I believe to be the two key arguments against soy: industrial production and oestrogen.

Industrial production of soy, is led mostly by US farmers being crushed under the cruel boot of debt, soil salination, erosion and fluctuating (if only downward) commodity prices. Soy beans along with corn were the golden crop of American agriculture, used to make everything from food manufacturing ingredients such as lecithin, oil, MSG and protein powder to plastics, and nutritional supplements. Such widespread farming of soy has seen biotech companies invest massive amounts of money in unwanted plant and animal control, fertilizers, breeding and genetic engineering. The result being that along with corn, soy has entered the American (and international) food chain so thoroughly as to be inextricable. The opposition to this over-supply and over-consumption of soy is understandable. After all, if beans grown on dead soil, fertilised and protected with chemicals originating from crude oil and then harvested and processed using a wide variety of chemical technological practices, they are hardly food anymore, instead, just another substance in an agro-industrial money making system. To this degree, criticisms relating to toxicity and over-consumption are wholly understandable. This soy scoffing vegetarian pretty much agrees with them. Let us take a look at the second argument.

Soy isoflavons have been variously defined/defamed as being oestrogen analogs. But what does this actually mean? Apparently, soy isoflavons found in “unfermented” soy products send signals to the body to produce oestrogen. The criticism here is that producing too much oestrogen can have negative effects on health. This is a malady perfectly suited to the uber-Christian, homophobic American mainstream. “My son’s a fucking faggot because we gave him too much soy as a child”. Amid all the hollering about the evils of soy, the feminisation of boys seems to attract the loudest, most vociferous voices. If the result of so-called feminisation via soy is the social and economic stability evident in Japan, then I say: “Bring it on!”. In fact, why don’t we revisit the second paragraph: hundreds of millions of people have been eating unfermented soy for thousands of years with few, if any, ill-effects.

If there is anything actually “wrong” with soy, then I would attribute it to mass agro-industrial production more so than anything in the beans themselves. So soy deniers, go back to rejecting night-shades (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, chillies and bell peppers), hating on carbohydrates and blaming obesity on genetics rather than lifestyle and leave that little bean alone.
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